Category Archives: church culture

Confessions of a “Failed” Church Planter

My friend and colleague, Pastor Noah Filipiak, interviewed me for his leadership podcast, “Behind the Curtain.” You can listen here. Most of the people he interviews are actually famous, so you might want to check it out.

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Jesus “Che” Christ: On the Limits of Countercultural Christianity

Your revolution is limited, bent, needs work

It’s more than hemp bracelets and a Che Guevara T-shirt.

—Mars Ill, “You Can’t Stop”

In 2007 the leftist political magazine In These Times featured a cover story entitled “Preaching Revolution” about a new generation of Christians that secular leftists “need to know.” On the cover: the iconic silhouetted image of Che Guevara made over with a crown of thorns. Jesus as Che. The story, which focussed heavily on Rob Bell (then at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, MI) discussed how the rhetoric of revolution and radicalism was out of vogue at the time with the secular left since it was viewed as too extreme to be practical, and meanwhile, ironically, that same rhetoric was gaining traction with this new generation of evangelical Christians.

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The evangelical credentials of Rob Bell have since been called into question (and I imagine even at the time he would’ve been uncomfortable with the label himself), but that’s beside the point. What the article got right, and what continues to be true, is that there is tremendous appeal—especially among Christians who are younger than, say, 50—to the idea that Christianity is radical, countercultural, and revolutionary. (In fact, a quick internet search reveals that there are lots of churches literally named Revolution).

In the seven years since, this trend has shown no sign of abating. Countercultural Christianity is here to stay, at least for a generation or two. 

Now at times, the language of radicalism is just being (what I’m sure the secular left would consider) co-opted. That is, it’s nothing more than marketing. In the US at least, there is a great deal of marketing value to the language of revolution and counterculture. It can sell computers. It can sell tacos. It can also sell churches.

Even politically moderate and conservative Christians have adopted it. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian, is fond of the phrase he coined that Christians should be “a counterculture for the common good.” But, even further to right, the idea of being “radical for Jesus” or “resisting the culture” fits perfectly with fundamentalist theologies of cultural separatism and the persecution complex of more civically-engaged politically conservative Christians. It is not at all unusual to hear words like “revolution” or phrases like “radically living out the gospel” on the lips of the Mark Driscolls of the world.   

At other times, the ethos of radicalism runs a little bit deeper than a sexy spray-on gloss. Take, for example, folks like Shane Claiborne who have successfully brought some of the elements of Christian anarchism and radical Anabaptist theology (e.g., voluntary poverty, solidarity with the poor, abstaining from governmental politics) into more mainstream expressions of Christianity. Then there is Jim Wallace, advocating for a politically-engaged but nonpartisan Christian leftism. There are a number of popular biblical scholars, including N.T. Wright and Walter Brueggemann, who have emphasized the anti-imperial message running through both the Old and New Testaments—and exerted a great deal of influence on preachers in the US and UK. Or, at the more academic level, there is the Radical Orthodoxy movement, where theologians like John Milbank are in serious dialogue with leftist philosophers like Slavoj Zizek.

The ideas and praxes of this second group are not always compatible, but they have in common a sense that a more faithful Christianity will be a more countercultural one. They employ language like “contrast community,” “counter-polis,” “resident aliens” and “peculiar people” to describe what the church should be. And they see their role as a prophetic one calling Christians to be more radical, more willing to look different.

My guess is that someone who came into my church on any given Sunday would count me as one of this new generation that is preaching revolution. Admittedly, I read and listen to and like a lot of the folks in that previous paragraph. I am also, admittedly, prone to framing Christian discipleship as countercultural. However, I think that the Christianity-as-counterculture move has its limits. And they are significant enough that they’re worth thinking about.

The first is the potential the rhetoric of counterculture has to backfire. It’s intended goal is to get Christians to be more radical. That is, to be willing, for the sake of Jesus and his kingdom, to live differently than the pagan world around them. But, in the post-cultural-revolution US, we Americans have a completely inverted relationship with conformity and rebellion, wherein our first impulse (collectively as a culture) is nonconformity or rebellion. I.e., we live in the complex and somewhat paradoxical situation in which rebellion is conformity to our cultural norms. Our culture is counterculture.

In such a situation, the “countercultural” Christian can have her cake and eat it too. That is, I can identify as radical and feel that I’m being countercultural while adopting views and practices that are actually embraced and celebrated by the culture around me. This can happen on a very superficial level (“I’m so rad ‘cause I have tattoos and listen to punk rock”) or on a deeper level (“Look at me counterculturally supporting gay marriage!”).

Nothing is inherently wrong with having one’s cake and eating it too, but, if genuinely radical discipleship is the goal, this situation is most definitely NOT shaping people to do that. When push comes to shove and actual nonconformity/rebellion/willingness to be persecuted and hated by the world is called for, I’m almost certain my tattoos will not have prepared me for it. If anything, those of us in this situation are atrophying our capacity for genuine resistance by stroking our own egos. The kid who buys the “WALMART SUCKS” T-shirt at Hot Topic is engaging in praxis that is shaping him to be a consumer, not praxis that is shaping him to resist consumerism. The pride with which he wears the shirt only makes it worse.

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Case in point, the struggle that avowedly countercultural Christians increasingly have with fully embracing the (actually) radical sexual ethic of historic Christianity. The article mentioned above quoted Jim Wallace as saying of young, revolutionary Christians “[they are] breaking away from the Right in droves – but they will never be captured by the left. They’re going to challenge the left on a lot of things: For these Christians, sex is covenantal and not recreational. And they oppose abortion and they are not going to move away from that.” Seven years later, these words ring hollow. Many of the revolutionaries have indeed been “captured by the left” on sexual ethics, and very few are “challenging the left” on these issues. (Though see Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig for a refreshing example).

The second concern I have is that, depending on one’s social context and historical moment, Christianity isn’t always countercultural. There are always some points at which the values of the dominant order overlap with the values of the kingdom of God. But it seems that we countercultural Christians are conditioned to be opposed to, or at least suspicious of, anything “conservative” or “mainstream.” The danger in this is not merely that it sets us up for knee-jerk thinking, that it shapes us into haters who are automatically against whatever we perceive is part of the regnant order. The greater danger beyond that, it seems that folks for whom the countercultural-ness of the Christian faith is its central appeal are prone to choose being countercultural over being Christian when the two come into conflict.

Sometimes the way this plays out is that people allow a political ideology to shape their views more than the faith and then do a lot of biblical or theological gymnastics to maintain their ideologically-shaped views are Christian. But I also know folks who eventually left the faith altogether because other, more radical lifestyles/worldviews were more appealing.

Don’t get me wrong, I still want to be part of a revolution. I’m not ready to let go of the language of counterculture just yet. In fact, I think it’s a pretty necessary lens for viewing the Christian faith. But those of us for whom it’s our favorite lens need to do some careful thinking about how we use it, to make sure we’re using it to clarify, and not distort, what it means to be faithful to the kingdom.

The Death of Mike Brown and the Death of the Church

I’ve been really rattled by the shooting death of Mike Brown. Shaken up. In no small part, I’m sure, because I am the father of black boys, and so there is a very real sense in which Mike Brown could’ve been my son. And so the image of him with his hands up, yelling, “Please stop shooting,” just guts me.

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But there is another, more important reason I’m torn up by the death of Mike Brown. And that is that I am a Christian. More specifically, I am a Christian in a denomination that has explicitly made it a goal to strive for a future free from racial injustice.

So this past Sunday, following the challenge of Eugene Cho, I preached a sermon on Jeremiah 34, a passage in which God punishes his people because they go back on a covenant they had made to liberate all their slaves. They set them free, but then they force them back into slavery. It was impossible not to see the resonances with the history of African Americans and the situation in Ferguson. And so I said so. And I hoped in some small way that speaking that truth would make a difference.

Then last week, I wrote a blog post about white privilege. Again, hoping in some small way to make an impact. And it got a lot of hits. And I felt a little better.

And then I read this post from another pastor, Thabiti Anyabwile. Anyabwile, who is a black man and a fairly conservative evangelical, throws down the gauntlet for his fellow evangelicals. He says, in no uncertain terms, if evangelicalism does not have a response for the oppressed people of our nation, then evangelicalism is dead:

…most of what’s been said [about Mike Brown and Ferguson] by evangelical leaders thus far (including my post yesterday) has been a general lament. It’s been the expressing of sentiment. There’s not yet been anything that looks like a groundswell of evangelical call for action, for theology applied to injustice. …our most influential leaders with the widest reach [have] been silent en masse. Today I think we need to be pushed a couple steps ahead.

Otherwise, orthodox evangelicalism is dead. It’s dead to oppressed folks in our back yards who need to hear the word of God spoken into their situation with all the prophetic unction our Lord would give. It’s dead to grieving parents required to have closed casket funerals for their children because racist systems and people so disfigure the body it can’t be shown. Orthodox evangelicalism is dead to the marginalized because it’s so allergic to the margins. It wants its mainstream, its tree-lined streets of cultural acceptance, its reserve and respectability. So it’s dead.

So here’s my call: Let there be the founding of a new conservative evangelical body with the aim of (1) providing clear, understandable, biblical theological frameworks for the pressing problems of the marginalized coupled with (2) organized calls to action and campaigns consistent with that framework.

Though I don’t (very comfortably at least) identify as an evangelical, I do identify as a orthodox Christian, and so I was cut to the heart by Anyabwile’s words. They reminded me that when Trayvon Martin was shot, I was rattled then too. And I read my denomination’s official statements condemning his death and calling for justice. And I posted them on Facebook. And I felt a little better. And then I forgot about Trayvon.

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Like most prophetic voices, Anybwile’s challenge is simultaneously inspiring and convicting. It is a challenge that applies not just to those who identify as evangelicals, but to all streams of Christianity.  (You should read the whole thing). Sermons and tweets aren’t going to cut it. If we don’t have a way to apply our faith to the injustices around us, if we don’t show solidarity with the poor and oppressed, if we don’t go out to the margins to stand with the marginalized, then the church in America is dead.

Most orthodox Christians have been focussed on their own marginalization from the cultural and political center of American life, as our views of sexuality have become increasingly unpopular. Given the rapid pace at which this has accelerated the past several years, that’s understandable. But if we’re so focussed on our own marginalization from the halls of power and the public square that we walk by our neighbor laying wounded in the street, then we have really—as the British say—lost the plot.

I, for one, will answer my brother Thabiti’s call. I am ashamed that I forgot Trayvon. I will not forget Mike Brown. I don’t have any easy answers, or even any sense of what concretely to do yet. But I’m going to start by listening to Thabiti and my other African-American brothers and sisters in the church. And I’m not going to stop until I do know what to do.

Why “Sex-Positive” is My New Least Favorite Word

So I want to explain why, as a Christian, “sex-positive” is my new least favorite word, even though I am myself a very sex-positive guy, and I believe that Christianity is also very sex-positive. But I’m going to need to back up a bit to get there.

Christianity is essentially a form of humanism. That is, at its core it is concerned with the dignity of the individual human being and the flourishing of humanity as a whole. However, unlike secular versions of humanism, Christianity recognizes humans as beings in relation to the transcendent, to something—and, specifically, Someone—beyond the material realm. 

humanism

A truly humanistic humanism must begin with an account of humans that is accurate. And humans are not merely physical/material beings. We have, to use traditional language, souls. We are indwelt by the eternal and we yearn for the eternal. We have a destiny, a telos, that includes, but is not limited to the physical. And so our highest and greatest good, our flourishing both as individuals and as a human community cannot be reduced merely to physical health, material prosperity, and just power relations, however important those things might be.

And yet, in post-Christian, pluralistic Western society, the secular worldview has now set the rules of engagement in the public square. And one of those rules is that moral claims—any “should” or “ought”—must be made without reference to the transcendent. Moral claims must be grounded in empirical evidence and be commonly agreed upon by all (or at least a voting majority). Thus, Christians, who are essentially humanists and have a desire to see human flourishing for all people and not just Christians, are now put in the awkward position of having to make a case for their account of human flourishing in secular terms.

It turns out this is impossible. (Go figure: you can’t explain a vision of human flourishing that is rooted in the transcendent without reference to the transcendent.) But Christians have still been doing their darnedest for the past century or so. At first, it worked…at least some of the time. Because enough of the fumes of transcendence still lingered in the air our culture breathed that even if we didn’t talk directly about God or the bible or the afterlife, we could still sort of pantomime enough in their direction that people picked up on it. But the thinner those fumes got, the harder it got. (Mixed metaphor, I know).

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As it has gotten harder, some Christians have respond by just retreating from the public square, but others have just pushed harder at this impossible task of making a compelling case for the “oughts” of the Christian vision without making reference to the transcendent. And the result has been, well, less than compelling. (Again, big surprise). And in the sphere of sexuality, this has been particularly difficult as the mindset of consumer choice and libertarian freedom has come to exert increasingly influence on our views of sex.

See, a Christian with one hand tied behind her back (the hand that would be pointing up to the transcendent/God) is forced to work with just one hand (the hand that only points around to the material/empirical realm). So she is forced to make the case that the Christian sexual ethic will result in more human flourishing than alternative ethics by pointing to “consequences” and “rewards” on the material/plane plane. I.e., to make the case that this ethic of reserving all sexual activity for marriage and maintaining life-long monogamy will avoid more consequences (unwanted pregnancy, STD’s, emotional trauma, etc.) and net more rewards (fulfilling sex life, fewer abortions, stronger marriage, etc.).

Now, I happen to think that this is true. And I think a fairly persuasive case can be made for it. See for example, Wendell Berry’s classic essay, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” (which is not entirely without reference to the transcendent, but puts most of the emphasis on how we have lost sight of the inherently communal nature of sex and its “consequences”). However, if someone as skilled and winsome as Mr. Berry can make a case for it, it’s also true that most of the time, the Christian, laboring away one-handed, ends up looking like a fool or a maniac.

one arm

More often than not, this one-handed approach comes off as what has recently come to be called “sex-negative.” Having agreed ahead of time not to use her transcendence hand, she hacks and slashes with her “immanent” hand, hammering on the “consequences” of extra-marital sex and the “rewards” that fornicators, masturbators, and pornography-users will miss out on. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. If you do X, Y will be the consequence. She appears to be (and maybe often is) using fear and shame, rather than being, well, sex-positive. The non-Christian observing all this feverish pointing at consequences interprets the Christian as saying—to use the words of one recent sex-positive blogger—SEX IS BAD! DON’T DO IT!

Meanwhile, the secularist, whose core moral convictions (self-expression is a moral good, personal autonomy trumps almost all other considerations, liberty is increased by maximizing choices, etc.) are not only allowed but do not even have to be argued for because they are just part of the Enlightenment air we all breath (i.e., she’s playing with two hands) can talk about sex in the context of these moral goods and calmly make some suggestions about “moderation” and “safety” and come off looking like a sane, common-sensical person who is just really, you know, sex-positive and has my flourishing at heart.

This so-called sex-positive approach has so much traction in our post-Christian cultural milieu, that even a lot of Christians seem to be jumping on board. Turns out mom and dad were overstating the consequences of premarital sex. Turns out our virginal wedding nights weren’t the awesome experience they built them up to be. Turns out we’ve got all kinds of lingering body-shame and sex-guilt from all the scare tactics of our youth pastors. Maybe this level-headed, be-safe-and-responsible-and-do-what-works-for-you approach is a better ethic than the crazy, ol’ fashioned Christian one.

But here’s the thing: I think that many of us (certainly the Christians, I would hope!) believe that humans are spiritual beings, that we do have a soul. And something as powerful and emotional and holistic as sex must involve that part of us. And so we need to untie that other hand if we’re going to really talk about sex. We need to talk about the transcendent if we’re going to make sense of it.

In particular, I think we need to introduce the word “sacred” to the conversation. See, the real reason the Christian sexual ethic puts such serious boundaries around sex is not because its afraid of the “consequences” of illicit sex. It is because it understands sex to be sacred. Sex is one of the rare and special things God has given us that is sacramental, it is a “thin place,” a portal between the material and the transcendent. Or maybe a better way to say that is: a place where God has promised to take up the material into the transcendent.

And even more than that, Christians believe that marital sex is a kind of “icon of redemption.” That the mutual giving and receiving of the spouses in conjugal love is a kind of lived picture of the love of God in Christ for us, the Bride, the Redeemed. And so a way of participating in the mystery of Redemption. 

If any of that is even half true, then sex is holy ground. It’s a place where we take off our sandals  to acknowledge we are in the presence of something beyond us, something mysterious and powerful and not of our own making. Something sacred.

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This is hardly being sex-negative. Sacred things have lots of boundaries around them and strict rules for how they are used not because they are dirty or because using them is shameful. Just the opposite: because they are holy and wonderful and good. To say the fine china is only for special occasions is not a negative view of the china. To say only the priest can enter the sanctuary is not a negative view of the sanctuary. To say that children should be protected and kept safe is not a negative view of children.

In short, if Christians can talk about sex on both the material and the transcendent planes, then I think we have the most sex-positive account going. (What other tradition recognizes all the aspects of sex—self-expression and bodily pleasure and human love and procreative power—and ties them all to a coherent vision of the world as created and redeemed and sustained by a loving God?) So as a pastor, I’m going to keep telling my people not to use porn or prostitutes, not to have sex before our outside of marriage. Not because I’m afraid of sex or squeamish about it or think its dirty. But because I’m sex-positive. Because sex is sacred. And I want to help them keep it that way.

OK, Folks, It’s Time To Be POST-Post-Evangelical

America's Smallest Church

I have never really been an evangelical. I grew up in a half-Catholic, half-Hindu(ish) home and had a conversion experience in college that ultimately landed me in an evangelical church. But unlike many of the popular critics of evangelicalism—the Rachel Held Evanses and the Rob Bells—I never really occupied that space as home. I came into the evangelical church already steeped in postmodern philosophy, already aware that there were many brands of Christianity with incompatible doctrines. Day One of my voyage into evangelicalism, I was already critical of the idea that the bible “clearly teaches” anything, already OK with evolution, already not OK with CCM music.

So, when the “emergent” and “post-evangelical” movements came along, I was excited, but I was technically not one of them. Because I wasn’t post- anything. I hadn’t gone to college a credulous Christian and had my worldview rocked by some proselytizing Philosophy professor. I hadn’t, like Shane Claiborne, been a raging political conservative who then met real gay people and real women who had had abortions who humanized the issues and changed my mind. But even though I had come via a different route than the post-evangelicals, I had landed in basically the same place. And I was glad there was now a voice for the critiques of evangelicalism they had to offer. 

One of the most important and enduring of these critiques was/is the call to extricate the church from politics. Or at least from conservative politics. Different demographers and historians tell the story somewhat differently, but the basic narrative runs like this: The Boomer generation had gotten tangled up in this thing called the Religious Right, sold their collective soul to the Republican party, and they had expended all their energy fighting culture wars. They lost sight of things like caring for the poor, defending the oppressed, and just being the church in their local contexts. In the process, they had ruined the Christian brand. Young people now saw the Church as homophobic, anti-woman, and xenophobic. Not-so-thoughtful, mean-spirited white men, like Jerry Falwell and George W. Bush, had become the face of evangelicalism.

Their children were embarrassed by this. And had some legitimate biblical/theological grounds for seeing much of this as unChristian. And those Gen Xers and Millenials who didn’t leave the church decided a course correction was in order. And they made three basic moves to get the hell away from the Religious Right trajectory:

#1 was the “soft power” route. This move says we still recognize the mandate to shape the culture, but we learned from our parents that trying to “legislate morality” is counterproductive, so we’re going to get out of politics and into culture making. We’re going to influence the culture as members of the creative class, make movies and music and websites and art. This route was taken by bands like Over the Rhine and publishers like Cameron Strang, who created Relevant, a magazine about “God, life, and progressive culture.” (A far cry from his father, Stephen’s Charisma magazine).

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#2 was to simply switch teams. Younger evangelicals reexamined the issues of the death penalty, war, gay marriage, Israel/Palestine, abortion, welfare and immigration reform, and found biblical bases for taking the opposite sides their parents were taking. The bookish ones exposed themselves to Christian feminism or queer theory or Marxism. So they kept the evangelical bent toward political activism, but invested their energy on the other side of the aisle. They joined the Religious Left. (A more moderate version of move #2 is the sort of apolitical, Bono-style activism that avoids ideologically-charged issues altogether and focusses completely on noncontroversial things like human trafficking and clean water).

Jesus Bleeding Heart Liberal

And #3 was what we might call the Anabaptist or anti-Constantinian move, the retreat from the idea of directly influencing the world at all. Taking cues from thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, these folks decided that the church’s job is to “be the church,” to worship, to pray, to love one another, to care for hurting neighbors. And trust that these acts are revolutionary in God’s politics and will ultimately be used for the kingdom, whether we ever see the results or not.

Of course, these three moves are not mutually exclusive, and most younger Christians have adopted some hybrid of the three. (And of course, few of them actually self-identify as post-evangelical because, well, its got the word “evangelical” in it). But so as I was saying, when this critique of evangelicalism came along and these three alternatives began to be proffered, I was thrilled. Totally on board. Each of these moves has some merit, and—when adopted with some nuance and balance—represents a much better theology of mission than the Christian=Republican model.

But so, here’s my point, (which is why I began by going out of my way to say that I am not a post-evangelical because I was never really an evangelical), as a non-post-evangelical who was initially really glad to see each of these three post-evangelical “moves” gain some traction, I have to now say that I think they are being over-applied by a whole generation. These three post-evangelical moves can be just as unbiblical or foolish or counterproductive to the kingdom mandate as the Religious Right tack taken by our parents. A reaction to a reaction is still reactionary.

Most of the Christians I interact with, and most of the people I minister to, could be said to be in this post-evangelical camp. And I would say that I can see the shadow of their parents’ politics lurking in almost every conversation. Like Rachel Held Evans or Brian McLaren or Rob Bell, they seem to be almost compelled by their negative experiences of a repressive or ignorant evangelicalism to land anywhere but where traditional evangelicalism would have them land.

And don’t even get me started about the public performance of these post-evangelical identities. My Facebook feed is a continuous stream of people going out of their way to let the world know they are not that kind of Christian. Challenging, mocking, or critiquing every traditional Christian position or doctrine. Quickly berating conservative Christian responses to current events and legislation. If I see one more “Christian” post about what a**holes the Hobby Lobby owners are or what the bible “really says” about gay marriage, I’m going to have to de-activate my account.

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Now, of course, every identity is formed in the crucible of its social context, and everybody’s thoughts and positions are subject to his/her personal history and negative experiences, but I think it’s time for post-evangelicals to get a little more reflective about how they are reacting against their parents or the Religious Right or a personal history they are ashamed of—and how they can start reacting to the love of God extended to us in Jesus Christ.

For example—and I’m just going to go straight for the jugular here—abortion. A good percentage of the younger Christians I know have ended up being either actively or passively pro-choice by making one of these three post-evangelical moves. Conversations about it almost always revolve not around the question of the morality of abortion itself, but rather the errors in the Church’s response in the past generation. Post-evangelicals are just cringingly embarrassed by angry abortion clinic picketers and “fetus worship” and the idea that their secular counterparts might see them as the indoctrinated kids in Jesus Camp. Some of them (the #2’s) have bought the secular feminist line that “reproductive rights” are the linchpin of justice for women. But even those who haven’t (the #1s and 3s) are desperate to find some kind of “third way” solution and not be viewed as in any way traditionally pro-life. (A common move: “What if instead of focussing on criminalizing abortion, Christians were willing to adopt all those unwanted babies?” Uh, last I checked, they were.) 

This is not a post about abortion. My point is that abortion is not a new issue for Christians. The idea that abortion is objectively evil is not something conservative evangelicals cooked up in the 80’s. It’s something Christians have always believed (E.g., check out the 1st c. Didache).  It is not an issue in need of re-thinking.

My point is that, while all three of these post-evangelical moves have their place, we seem to be reaching a critical baby-with-the-bathwater type of point. As someone who never really was an evangelical, I can say “objectively” that evangelicalism didn’t get everything wrong. Much of what evangelicals believe stands within the broad tradition of historic orthodox Christianity and is, to use it’s own language, biblical. So, whether you identify as progressive or post-modern or emergent or radical or post-evangelical, at the risk of getting all cutely meta, I think it’s time to start re-thinking your re-thinking of the Christian faith, time to question your questioning of mom and dad’s politics. It’s time to become post-post-evangelical.